I wasn’t too familiar with the Book of Revelation when I started writing “Jesus Loves Nukes.” Revelation appears at the end of the New Testament as a series of visions by a prophet named John. I was under the impression that evangelicalism in general took it pretty literally, reflecting events that will take place in the future, whereas other Christian denominations saw it more symbolically. That is more or less accurate.
But I had also believed, incorrectly, that the beliefs about the End Times commonly associated with evangelicalism were all laid out in Revelation. Turns out they’re not: some forms of evangelicalism, including the one I want to focus on, dispensationalism, interpret material from elsewhere in the Bible and splice it into the narrative of Revelation. I’ve chosen to concentrate on dispensationalism because it includes the strain of evangelicalism that is looking forward to the end of the world that I discussed in “Jesus Loves Nukes.”
In this series, I will first cover what happens in Revelation in Part I, then move on to discuss how it fits into dispensationalist views of the End Times in Part II, explore how these views affect individual life experiences and are represented in pop culture in Parts III, IV, V, and VI, and finally talk about alleged signs that the End Times are coming in Part VII.
A lot of truly wild stuff happens in the Book of Revelation and it’s full of amazing imagery, but I can’t cover all of it here. I will give a shout-out to the Last Podcast on the Left episode on the topic as a fun way to learn more about the historical context in which it was written and some of the interpretations along with more about the story itself (Spotify / YouTube). PBS also has some great resources.
Along with my summary, I’ve included some rad illustrations from Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana, which was written in what is now Spain between 730 and 785 AD. Also, since evangelicals mostly use the New International Version of the Bible, here’s where it starts if you’d like to follow along.
Before I start, I should also note that although dispensationalist beliefs rely on the visions that make up Revelation to form the backbone of a timeline of the End Times, like many regular dreams, Revelation itself is not linear, and has other dreamlike qualities like characters with ambiguous identities. I will present Revelation here in the order in which all the scenes appear in the Bible and I’ll tackle the dispensationalist interpretation and timeline in Part II.
John’s visions begin with receiving messages from Jesus to deliver to the seven major churches of Asia. One is located in a city called Philadelphia. Like the others he mentions, this was in fact a real city during that historical period, which I had no idea about.
Then he is brought before the throne of Heaven. There, the holy Lamb, which has seven horns and seven eyes (which are not depicted in Commentary on the Apocalypse for some reason, sadly), opens each of seven seals on a scroll.
When the Lamb opens the first four seals, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appear:
- The first, on a white horse, has a bow and a crown, and is bent on conquest.
- The second, on a red horse, has a sword and the power to make people kill each other.
- The third, on a black horse, holds scales and brings famine.
- The fourth, on a pale horse, in addition to the deaths that have already taken place, causes the deaths of one quarter of the earth’s population through more of the above plus plagues and attacks by wild beasts, which for some reason I imagine as feral hogs.
Opening the fifth seal reveals that more believers will be martyred for their faith before God avenges them with the Last Judgement against the wicked, and opening the sixth seal causes a massive earthquake, during which the sky goes dark and the moon turns blood red.
There is an interlude where, in the presence of the Lamb, true believers from the Twelve Tribes of Israel who have converted and accepted Jesus, 144,000 in total, receive the seal of God on their foreheads so they can avoid some of what’s to come. As well as the number seven, there is also an awful lot of people being marked on their foreheads in Revelation.
We also see angels come down from Heaven and reap all of the grapes of the earth and place them into “the winepress of God’s wrath.” The wine turns to blood and rises as high as a horse’s bridle for a 300 km radius.
Back to the seals: after the seventh seal is opened, seven angels sound seven trumpets, each causing more death and destruction in a different way:
- Hail and fire mixed with blood burn up one third of the world’s vegetation.
- A burning mountain falls from the sky and lands in the ocean, turning one third of the sea into blood, which kills one third of sea creatures and destroys one third of ships.
- A falling star called Wormwood poisons one third of the world’s rivers and springs.
- For one third of each day and night, celestial bodies are darkened, causing total darkness on Earth.
- “Locusts,” which are described as looking like warhorses with human faces, hair like women, lion’s teeth, armoured breastplates, wings that make the sound of chariots, and stingers like scorpions, strike anyone who doesn’t have God’s seal, and they suffer agony that makes them want to die for five months but they are unable to. (Apparently many see this as a description of attack helicopters.)
- An army of 200 million horsemen, whose horses have the heads of lions and can breathe fire and have snakes for tails, kills one third of humanity.
- There is lightning, thunder, and earthquake, and more hail.
As a side note, PBS, always a good scientific source on any topic, refers to the death toll of all the judgements as being estimated at 80% of humanity.
Then there is another interlude in which John is given a measuring rod and asked to measure the Temple of God. God also appoints two witnesses, who will prophesy for 3.5 years and can breathe fire.
Next up is a visit to Heaven, where Satan, in the form of the seven-headed Dragon, wages a battle against Michael the Archangel, loses, and is cast down to Earth.
Then we see the Beast, who is also described as having seven heads, rise from the sea. He is described as having received a fatal head wound that miraculously healed (on one of his heads). The Dragon gives the Beast powers that will allow him to take control of all of humanity.
Then a second Beast, also known as the False Prophet, rises from the ground. The Beast and False Prophet blaspheme against God and demand that everyone worship the Beast instead, either directly or through an image of him that can speak, which the False Prophet has helped set up. At this point, the False Prophet also orders that everyone accept a mark on their foreheads, representing the name of the Beast or the number 666, in order to buy or sell goods or services.
The False Prophet threatens that anyone who doesn’t worship the Beast or his image will be executed. But an angel reveals that anyone who does, and even anyone who gets the mark, will be sentenced to eternity in the lake of fire at the Last Judgement.
The False Prophet also manages to kill the two witnesses, despite the fire breathing, but they come back to life, and God brings them up into Heaven.
Next, we hear about seven angels unleashing seven plagues on the followers of the Beast. These are described as being poured out of seven bowls. They are:
- Foul and malignant sores
- The sea turning to blood
- Fresh water turning to blood
- The sun scorching the earth and burning some people with fire
- Total darkness
- The drying up the river Euphrates
- A great earthquake and hailstorm that causes islands to be submerged and mountains to collapse.
At this point, evil spirits in the form of frogs come out of the mouths of the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet, and convince the kings of the world to prepare armies to fight on their behalf in a battle at a place called Armageddon—so it turns out Armageddon is actually the name of the location, also called Megiddo, not the battle itself.
In another interlude, an angel provides some more information about the once-great city called Babylon that was destroyed during the events of the seventh bowl. It had irredeemably fallen to evil and was governed by the Prostitute/Whore/Harlot of Babylon (depending on the Bible version), who rode on the Beast, and had both committed adultery with and ruled over the kings of the world.
On her forehead was written, in what must be very small text:
BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH
The angel also reveals that ten men had been given kingdoms by the Beast and become kings, and they were aligned with the Beast.
We next go from interlude to interlude. In this one, John describes the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. It is unclear from the text who the Lamb’s “bride” is or how many horns and eyes she has, but apparently the most common interpretation is that she actually represents the true believers in Jesus.
Then, picking up where we left off, with the armies of the Beast gathering, the Heavenly Warrior, who as I discussed in “Jesus Loves Nukes” may or may not be Jesus, returns for the Battle of Armageddon. He does have the same sword coming out of his mouth that Jesus does when John describes him at the start, though, so now I’m going to join with the US Air Force and say he is actually Jesus too. Even he has a name written on him that only he knows, although the text doesn’t say whether it’s on his forehead or not.
Anyway, along with the army of Heaven, and with everyone riding white horses, he defeats the Beast, the False Prophet, the Dragon, and the kings’ armies.
He casts the Beast and the False Prophet into the lake of fire to suffer for all eternity and imprisons the Dragon in a bottomless pit for 1,000 years.
Now Jesus is mentioned by name as being back as he reigns over the world during this time. Any martyrs who had been killed for their faith in the past, including by the Beast and his followers during this period, are at this time resurrected themselves. They are blessed with supreme longevity and are still living when, 1,000 years later, the Dragon is released from the bottomless pit and returns for round two.
The Dragon tricks the kings of the world to join his army again — it’s 1000 years later, so you can understand them falling for it. Between the frogs, and the Prostitute of Babylon, and now this, they do seem pretty easy to manipulate, however.
Anyway, Jesus is ready to fight. He triumphs in this battle as well, this time thanks to a rain of fire from Heaven, and casts the Dragon into the lake of fire.
Jesus then goes on to enact the Last Judgement, which involves even more casting: seated on his white throne, he goes through a book of everyone who has ever lived and casts the wicked into the lake of fire along with the horseman who represents death.
As well as those who worshipped the Beast, the wicked include:
the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars.
It’s worth highlighting that all of these people suffer the same eternal destiny as Satan himself, which is, needless to say, a very punitive carceral policy.
Then a new Heaven and new Earth take the place of the current Heaven and Earth and, because the horseman is now consigned to the lake of fire, for everyone who is left, there is no more suffering or death. All other dead believers are resurrected now too and everyone gets the name of God marked, guess where, on their foreheads.
And God, who hasn’t appeared to humanity since the Old Testament, possibly because Job won an argument so handily, comes back as well, and lives forever with the good in a holy city called New Jerusalem.
New Jerusalem is made of precious jewels, has walls that are 200 feet thick, and is 2200 square kilometres in area, which makes it about the size of Tokyo. It is also 2200 kilometres high, which I have no idea how someone writing around 90 AD would even conceptualize.
Even I struggle with it. The Tyrell headquarters in Blade Runner, which was the first fictional world I thought of with all super tall buildings, is 700 stories high, which only works out to 2.3 km. Then space starts at either 80 or 100 km up, depending on which horse you’re backing in the billionaire space race. So 2,200 km is really, really high.
The image of New Jerusalem from the book does not tackle these problems of scale, but it sure is neat:
That’s pretty much what John recounts from his visions in the Book of Revelation. I’ve left stuff out that’s worth exploring further, but I think I’ve covered everything that will be relevant to further discussing the evangelical dispensationalist view of the End Times.
Next, in Part II, I’ll cover the other sources that are drawn into that conception and discuss how it all fits into dispensationalism. I’ll also start including a lot more jokes. In Parts III, IV, V, and VI, I’ll look at how popular media based on these beliefs represent the End Times. And finally, appropriately given all the sevens in Revelation, I’ll end with Part VII, where I’ll discuss interpreting contemporary events as signs the End Times are coming.
Anyway, let’s end on a musical note again. Here is American blues legend Son House, performing “John the Revelator.”
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